Is There A Future For Stock Agents?

Posted on 9/20/2006 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



September 20, 2006

The following letter, written by Pino Granata of Granataimages in Italy, has been circulated among agency owners in Europe and the U.S. and laments the trends the stock photo business has taken. I agree with his concerns and have responded to many of the points he makes in his letter.

Is there any future for photographers and agents?

    I guess there are a lot of people crossing their fingers while reading these words, but I do think it's a proper question to ask. Getty, Corbis, Jupiter and some other agencies are fighting to control the market and in this war there are a lot of casualties.

    Now, I think with the subscription we have reached a point of no return. With $5000.00 per-year a company can use up to a thousand picture a month at a cost of less than 50 cents a picture. These big agencies can afford to sell at this low price because they have bought hundreds of thousands of pictures and can sell them cheap because they don't have to pay any royalties to photographers.

    At this point I wonder if being a photographer in these days makes any sense. Clients can buy whatever they want and need in this more than competitive market and they do. The medium and small stock photo agencies are in the same situation as the photographers. If we check the CEPIC booklet, (European stock agency association members list) we'll find that a lot [of the agencies that existed a few years ago have been bought by] Getty, Corbis and Jupiter which now control between 70% and 80 % of the market. This trend is not over. At this point, everybody is wondering who will be the next independent agency to be bought by [one of] the big three.

    I've lived all my life in this business, but now I'm very seriously thinking of doing something else because it's almost impossible to survive in a market with such big players. But I'm 64 and can't think of my life out of the photo business. I guess there are a lot of people with the same problems and everybody wonders what to do. Good question and difficult answer.

    Something must be done and I'm pretty sure that everybody will appreciate any smart suggestions and advice.

The issues raised in this letter are certainly on the minds of all the smaller players in the industry, but "crossing their fingers" and hoping is the one thing that won't do much good. The following are a few of my thoughts and ideas.

A Few Initial Thoughts

  • Subscription and Micro Payment (S&MP) are certainly taking a share of the market by offering very low priced pictures and these cheap pictures will certainly siphon off an increasingly larger share of the traditional market. A lot of the people producing pictures for micro payments are graphic designers who are basically looking to "trade photos" with other designers, not earn a living from licensing rights to their photos. They want cheap photos for their designs and their profits come from what they can charge for their design work relative to their cost of raw materials (photos). It is important to recognize that these suppliers, unlike professional photographers, have very little incentive to want to see prices for micro payment photos to rise. Thus, the existence of MP will certainly siphon off some of the market. The question is how much.

  • In the case of (S&MP) sales the big agencies have a slight advantage because they own the pictures, but they also pay royalties on some images, particularly on the micro payment side of the business, so owning may not be that big of an issue.

  • Owning pictures could turn out to be problem for some of the big three because in a lot of cases they are buying content for which there may not be a whole lot of future demand. In such cases they may not end up making a profit on their investment. Small agencies that see what the big agencies are doing and think owning content may be a solution for them should exercise a lot of caution in trying to compete in this way. One of the advantages of the agency business is that agencies assume a lot less than photographers who produce on speculation. The big agencies may be magnifying their risks by moving to own more content rather than simply paying royalties on sales. This is certainly the case if they don't have very solid long range sales and use data and analyze that data very carefully.

  • I don't think it makes sense for a young person to pursue stock photography as a full time career. It may make sense to consider stock photography as a supplement to other income, but it doesn't look like young people are not going to be able to make a career out of producing still images as stock. I don't think any photographer living in the West will be able to earn enough licensing rights at micro payment levels to justify producing images as a full time business. In places like India and China where the cost of living in terms of U.S. dollar is much lower it may be possible.

  • I agree that the big three own 70% to 80% of the stock photography market and I think they have a stronger position on the commercial side of the business than on the editorial.

  • More agencies will probably be acquired, although the pickings for the big three are getting very slim.

    Pino is 64. I'm 70 and stock photography has been a great career and a great ride, but I don't envy those who are 50 to 55 years old, who have worked hard and re-invested their profits in an effort to grow their businesses.

    Our Industry Isn't Alone

    A hundred years ago when the automobile was invented there were people who made a good living manufacturing buggy whips. And I'm sure many of them were crossing their fingers and asking, "Is there a future for buggy whip makers?" More recently, there are workers who entered the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry 10 to 20 years ago who were sure they had a career for life. Then their companies started focusing on producing SUV's and the price of gasoline skyrocketed and these workers are getting dumped at age 50 or 55 with no other marketable skill.

    Ten years ago there were companies that made a living from processing color transparency film and making photographic prints. Many of them are already out of business and most of the others won't last much longer. It is a service for which there will be very little need going forward.

    Technology and the Internet has changed the stock photography business, as well as many businesses, and there is no way to reverse it. The important thing for every individual in this business is to be brutally realistic and honest about his or her current situation and his or her prospects for the future, not necessarily the prospects for the industry. Then determine what to do next. For the vast majority the answer will be not to continue what they have been doing.

    One thing is clear. Agencies and photographers who try to continue to operate in the traditional ways have little chance of surviving.

    Some Observations

    I think the worldwide industry currently generates about $1.7 billion in annual sales of still images. It is entirely possible that the industry as a whole will be generating less than $1.7 billion in 2 to 3 years.

    It's important to recognize that overall volumes on the traditional side of our business are unlikely to rise going forward. (I will accept that micro payment is bringing new buyers to the market but the vast majority of these people cannot afford to pay more than a dollar an image. And it seems pretty clear that no more than a handful of photographers will ever be able to make a full time living selling pictures for $1.00 each. See my article on "Micro Payment" at Prices will not go up and are very likely to fall. (See my article on "Where Are Pricing And Volumes Headed?"

    Thus, the only way to increase revenue is to take market share from someone else in the industry - which probably means at least some from one or more of the big three. Most will find that very difficult to do.


    Since growing revenue is unlikely it is important to cut costs and focus on the aspect of business where you have the greatest strength be it Sales, Production or Managing a Large Web Site. Aim to focus all your energies on one aspect of the business. To try to do all three well will be almost impossible.

    Let me outline one possible example to illustrate my point. Alamy has a great technology platform. They don't produce any of their content or own any of their content. It all comes from outside sources. Their sales operation is weak in every country except maybe the UK. They could probably increase volumes by having a stronger sales operation in the U.S. and maybe in other countries. They have a choice of ramping up a sales staff that they wholly own like Getty, Corbis and Jupiter have done, or they could work out an arrangement with existing operations in various countries that already have a strong sales team in place and know the local market well.

    In this way Alamy gets to expand their sales staff without a significant increase in overhead. The sales agent in the other countries can now reduce overhead because they no longer have to develop and maintain a web site or deal with the costly and time consuming process of acquiring content. I have no indication that Alamy is thinking in this direction at all, but it could be a win-win situation for everyone.

    In the retail environment most stores don't manufacturer their own products; they get them from suppliers. Anyone who is small (under $10 million in gross revenue) needs to think about focusing on one of two things.

      1 - Be a producer and supplier of product and turn the building of the web site and the sales and marketing over to someone else, or

      2 - If your strength is in sales and marketing find a way to ally yourself with one, or maybe several, large portals and be part of the sales team for the large portal rather than trying to convince your customers to come to your small shop.

    Building a good and effective portal is a totally separate thing and doesn't need to be managed by either the producer or the marketing sides of the business, although in many cases it is likely to be managed by the sales side of the business.

    But, consider AGE's THP. It is close to being a pure portal. It pretty much stays out of both the sales side and the production side of the process and just provides technology services. Look for THP to expand. There may also be room for other technology platforms that get their images from a broad base of image producer/suppliers and serve many different sales and marketing companies.

    One of the problems today is that too many image sellers are wasting energy and resources trying to build their own custom technology platform when their main forte is the relationships they have and the services they can provide with a select group of customers.

    Consider also whether the subscription and micro payment portals couldn't expand their reach if they had individual sales teams in various regions of the world going out and pushing their product, and negotiating custom deals rather than relying entirely on the Internet and occasional print marketing strategies to get their message across. Some of this is already happening, but there may be room for expansion and it may be a way that some of the traditional agencies that have focused primarily on selling could transition their businesses.

    Only the large stores will survive. Instead of each small brand trying to develop and manage its own store (web site) the small brands need to find a way to get their production on at least one large portal and preferably several. The small stores also need to focus on building alliances to cut overhead and benefit from each company's efficiencies, rather than competing.

    The idea of being an exclusive representative for certain products is dead. There are a few sellers who are still hanging on to the old idea of being the exclusive representative of certain product in their sales area. They need to give this up and accept the idea that the store down the street may be offering the same product. They need to differentiate themselves on service, discounts or some feature other than that they are the only place the customer can get a particular image.

    If they need to be able to sell exclusive rights then they need to put pressure on the technology supplier to offer a system (like Getty and Corbis have) that will enable them to block an image from all other buyers during a period of an exclusive and maybe give them some way to determine if the images has been used by certain other customers in the past. They also need to be prepared to charge significantly higher fees for exclusives to compensate for the lost opportunity of making other sales of the image. They need to stop offering exclusives at fees only slightly above one-time use prices.

    Some agents will be able to make it by just being consolidators of imagery. Photographers are finding that it is very time consuming to do editing, cleanup, resizing and color correcting of the RAW files and then get them keyworded and placed on a variety of portals. In some cases photographers can put the images on a portal like Alamy themselves, but most of the other portals only accept images from agents so the photographer must go through an agent or consolidators to get his or her images on one of these other portals. If the agent takes over these chores the photographer can then use his or her time more efficiently by focusing on taking pictures, not becoming a computer technician.

    Some agents will be able to make such a service businesses work. In such cases agents may act as a service bureau for a fee, on a percentage basis, or a combination of both. If this is the focus of the agents business he doesn't have to have a sales operation or manage a web site. Such operations may be able to function with very low overhead, provide a much needed service and be more profitable than a company that generates much higher revenue. More to the point is that it may be the only way for many small operations to stay in the stock photography business at all.

    The very fact that there is so much imagery available online may increase the need for researchers and people with expertise in certain subject areas to winnow through what is available and present a tightly edited offering. Experts in various subject areas could be useful. Whether there will be enough demand for people to make a living doing this is unclear to me.

    For some footage may be the answer. So far we're not seeing a huge growth in demand, but you have to believe that eventually there will be a large growth in usage of footage on the Internet. And as the Internet begins to replace print as a means of communication and advertising it would seem logical that the demand for footage will grow as print uses decline. However, it is very unclear how soon this might happen and whether the types of footage that will be in greatest demand will be the same type of thing footage shooters are producing today.


    There is no question that survival for photographers is going to be very tough. A photographer must get his or her production represented on as many different portals as possible, and consider dealing direct whenever possible in order to cut out middleman percentage. On the other hand, it some cases it may be better to give up dealing with some portals directly in order to get the images on the maximum number of portals and to avoid having to spend time in the preparation and keywording of images.

    Don't Overspend Volumes will not grow. The average return-per-image will go down. There is no stopping it. The only question is how far and how fast, and whether somehow volume can make up the difference. More and more competing images are becoming available in every subject category, every day. And it is getting easier for customers to have effective access to all of them. There is no stopping this trend.

    Portals are getting larger and larger and for the most part customers will only go to the big portals. Since most portals operate on a system that puts either the images that have sold, the most recent images or a combination of the two at the top of the search return order images those that have been in the pack for a while get pushed further down in the search order and there is less chance they will be seen. Thus, high demand subjects like "couple on the beach", "woman on cell phone" or "businessman using laptop" have a very short useful life if they don't sell immediately upon becoming available. Nobody has been able to come up with a way to solve this problem and I think it is something that photographers are going to have to accept and live with. Recognizing that images may not have a long useful life changes what a photographer can afford to spend on production.

    Unique images with characteristics that allow the uniqueness to be described in keywords may have a longer useful life, but they also tend to be subjects that are not in high demand. (An example would be a specific stately home in the UK, but how often will a buyer ask for that specific "stately home" rather then using the generic term.)

    When a company like Getty controls the production side and the technology platform there is a tendency to use the data developed from sales statistics to produce wholly owned material and place it near the top of the search order. This makes it even less likely that photographers who don't have access to such data, and have no control over search order, but who are being paid on a royalty basis, will be able to make a reasonable return on their investment.

    Photographers who produce images that are not in high demand may find that such images have a much longer useful life. For example, I heard recently of a customer who was looking for a picture of an air conditioning repairman to use in a small yellow pages ad. I checked Getty and they had one picture of someone working on a major industrial system. Corbis had three pictures, two on industrial systems and one very nice one on a homeowners system. Jupiterimages had nothing. IStockphoto had 20 images, all taken on the same shoot of two guys working on a home system. One of iStock's images had been downloaded 171 times and the total downloads for all 20 images in 16 months was 829. It seems likely that if the iStock photographer had shown her images to editors at either Getty, Corbis or Jupiter she would have been blown off with the comment, "The subject is not something our customrs need."

    It's also important to note that the customer in this case had a budget of $23 for the picture. Part of the question for photographers is does it make sense to shoot pictures like this and where to put them.

    This points up an interesting problem. The guys who are shooting the high demand stuff in and effort to try to get volume sales at high prices are in deep trouble because too many people are producing the same thing. On the other hand how much demand will there by for subjects like air conditioning repairmen. Can someone make a business of just photographing every type of repairman? Now that I've mentioned this will we have 150 photographers rushing out tomorrow to do this and then we'll have a great oversupply in this area, too?

    The task is not easy for photographers because in most cases they do not have access to good data necessary to making wise decisions and they are expected to take the greatest risks.


    From: Ellen Boughn (

    I have long held the opinion that content that is exclusive to a distributor in a certain territory is better for the photographer in the long run when the images are very unique and have a high production value. I agree that multiple distribution channels in territories are the best way to gain hi ROI for RF and most editorial images. However, I have long held the opinion that content that is exclusive to a distributor is better for the photographer in the long run when the images are very unique and have a high production value.

    However, I believe that one cause of the issues that Pino brings up, is the approach that you have long championed. You have encouraged photographers to put unique RM images in as many places as they can. With the standardization of keywords industry wide by the few "Getty compliant" vendors, duplicate images show up next to each other in buyer's project specific desktop lightboxes. It is a simple matter to find the source that will license the RM image for the least amount. I heard this in a meeting with art buyers just this last week in NY at a huge global agency.

    We in the industry have devalued our most unique images by making them available in multiple venues where a buyer has access. As the bottom gets more and more crowded with subscription and micro payments, the unique work at the top will become more valuable. There is a reason that the big boys only take image exclusive images. I know you disagree but I had to step in to continue our 25-year argument about this issue!

    Best regards, Ellen


    Val Gelineau

    CEO/Co-Founder PhotoSpin, Inc.

    It's interesting that this subject has come up again. I recently addressed this same topic in my new blog, "Spin On" I respect both Jim Pickerell and Pino Granata for their knowledge, opinions and contributions to the Stock Industry. I however, see the industry differently.

    The Stock Industry is changing but I think for the better. With the advent of desktop publishing we now have the ability to reach millions of new customers who until recently could not afford to purchase quality images. This customer is not interested in an image history. They want a graphic to convey a message, plain and simple. Their budgets aren't as large as a traditional advertising agency but their needs are as great. The Subscription and Micropayment models are a perfect fit for this client - and the professional designer (working on a budget) also finds him or herself in this category.

    More importantly, the professional photographer needs to embrace these new image buyers because they can create income from these categories. These are new avenues, not replacements. I see four categories for photographers to sell their work: assignment work, rights managed, royalty-free, and of course, micro payment sites. Each venue offers photographers a unique opportunity to make money and granted, not all of these outlets are right for all images, but they should definitely be explored and looked at as a means for selling a variety of different "levels" of photography.

    Man Ray, David Hockney and Ansel Adams were not trained as professional photographers. Yet, they were inspired by other artists/photographers to pick up a camera and create. Granted, technically film is more complicated than digital and required knowledge beyond the camera (lighting, processing, printing, etc.) but a great image is still a great image.

    Professional Photographers today - and let's face it this category includes a variety of creative types with digital cameras - now have the ability to essentially get paid for testing. They can hone in on their skills and develop portfolios while being paid.

    This is quite different from the photography of 20 years ago. Photographers can expand into many more new markets reaching not only the traditional image buyer but anyone using a computer. While I agree today's photographer who only looks to one source of revenue to build their business is at a distinct disadvantage, those willing to think outside of the box can create multiple revenue streams for years to come. Even if their background does not include an education in photography.

    The industry is constantly changing - what industry doesn't? You can choose a pessimistic view but be careful that you don't stagnate. Or, be an optimist like me and see that there are actually many new possibilities for the photographer, the image buyer and the agencies alike. Successful, up and coming photographers recognize this! That's exactly why micropayment and subscription sites have taken off - there's a market for it!


    From: George

    One reads a lot of very pessimistic comments on your site. Of course it's useuful to expose and discuss the very real dangers awaiting us, but I wonder whether the almost uniformly negative view that emerges corresponds to the reality on the ground. I'm 59, been in this business for decades, and after surviving a VERY lean period in 2002 - 2003, I'm doing better than ever, thank you very much.

    I'm with 11 agencies, and while some will obviously not survive (I haven't seen a penny yet from Granata this year) others are striving. It's probably true that many small agencies are in an impossible situation, but a photographer can always reshuffle his or her agency representation and go with the winners.

    Obviously it's your task to analyse the difficulties in our industry, but sometimes I have the impression that you are advising that we should all sell our cameras, which is perhaps going a little too far?! As I consider myself neither artistically accomplished nor a technical wizard, but just a simple hard working person, I'm sure that there are plenty of other people out there in my situation or better.

    So, my contrary opinion is that there is plenty of life left in our industry. Of course, I probably wouldn't recommend a 20 year old to get into stock.


    From: Bill Brooks

    I would not recommend a 20 year old go into Stock Photography, but I would recommend a 20 year old go into assignment Photography. I think, with the advent of the internet, there is a huge opportunity for assignment photographers in smaller markets to act locally but think globally. One no longer has to be located in New York or LA to work local assignments on national accounts.

    A local photographer can take an image and FTP it to the client before the New York photographer even gets off the airplane.I think assignment photography will also erode what remains of the high price RM stock business. Why would a client pay $20,000 for an RM stock image taken in Hawaii, when today he can go to his computer and call up the portfolios of dozens of competent Hawaiian assignment photographers? Photographers who can create the client's image to the client's unique specifications for a mere 1/2 day rate, and also leave the client with all of the copyright.

    The business has come full circle from the 1990's, when assignment photographers were trying to get into Stock. Now Stock photographers are trying to get into assignments!


    Pino Granata

    Photographers used to work on assignement and when their clients finished using the images the photographers made them available as stock pictures. The advantage of this method of working was that the assigning client was paying the overhead. In my more than 40 years in the photo business I've met and worked with this kind of shooters.

    At a certain point the stock photography market was so profitable that many photographers started shooting according to the needs of the photo agencies that represented them. Working on spec offered the advantages of being able to work whenever they wanted and being able to focus on producing pictures they believed would be most saleable. I know quite a few photographers who worked this way, made six digit figures and were very happy as independent photographers.

    Spec shooting is much more risky today.

  • Copyright © 2006 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-251-0720, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

    Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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